Monday, June 28, 2021

All Power to the Soviets

The book October caught my eye recently. It's written by China Mieville, who has become one of my favorite authors, and it's set during a time I don't know much about, the Russian Revolution of 1917. From the brief blurb of the book, I had thought that it was a historical fiction novel; but it actually isn't, it's a straight history book. But it's history as told by a novelist, and China makes it a gripping, exciting, powerful story. Of course, the source material helps a lot! All of the dialogue in this book is taken from primary-source quotations, and the actual events during this period are absolutely astonishing, often veering into actions that would seem ludicrously unrealistic in a Hollywood movie.


China gives some brief background on the history of Russia leading up to the Revolution, and notes some of the major events taking place in Europe and elsewhere in the Russian empire, but most of the book is focused specifically in the capital of Petrograd from February through October (in the Julian calendar) 1917. I'll note at the start of this post what China notes at the end of his book: the Soviet Union turned into an incredibly dark, repressive place: a place with gulags, terror, suppression, murder. I'm reminded of an old saying that any story can be a tragedy or not depending on when you choose to stop telling the story. If you leave "Into the Woods" after Act 1, it seems like a very different story than if you leave it after Act 2. For most of "October", then, China is focused on what it felt like in the moment: the revolutionaries weren't asking for gulags or the purge, they were agitating for freedom, for dignity, for economic justice. I think that's a great choice; he gives the book a focus and drive by engaging with the events at the street level as they were happening, and not constantly coloring everything with the hindsight of the following century.

I spent a lot of the book trying to get a bead on China's precise attitude towards his subjects. He is a proud socialist and has made his political views known both in his fictional works and his public statements. I think that overall I would characterize his attitude as "admiring but not necessarily approving." The sheer scope of what the Bolsheviks accomplished in half a year is simply astonishing. At the same time, he definitely avoids eulogizing any individuals or factions, and doesn't hesitate to point out when they are lying, spinning, missing an opportunity or failing to understand what's happening.

I didn't know a whole lot about this time period before reading the book. I'm sure I covered it in World History in high school, and through osmosis learned a bit about the Tsar and Rasputin and Lenin and Trotsky and other major characters. My understanding of the actual dynamics, though, were very flawed. Probably the single biggest misconception was that I thought Lenin orchestrated and led the revolution. Throughout October, it's surprising just how marginalized and irrelevant he is. During the critical early months, he was far away in Zurich: reading old newspapers about events in Russia and stewing that he wasn't involved. After a brief period in the capital, he went back into hiding, in the countryside and then in Finland, once again writing irate letters to newspaper editors about what everybody was doing wrong. More than anything, the Lenin of this book reminds me of a Twitter Reply Guy: constantly backseat-driving and second-guessing the decisions made by people who are actually doing things.

It isn't just Lenin that seems disconnected, though: really, the biggest thread throughout the book is how the leadership of the Left was constantly scrambling to try and catch up with what grass-roots people were actually doing. This struck me as very similar to the dynamic in Strike!; in that book, I was surprised to learn that labor unions are mostly responsible for preventing strikes rather than instigating them, and likewise in October, the Left to a greater degree and the Bolsheviks to a lesser degree are primarily preoccupied with stopping the Revolution: or, if not stopping it, to delay it for a century or ensure it doesn't go too far.

In Strike!, I'd never really understood just why union leaders opposed strikes, though I had my theories. In China's telling of October, it's clearer why the Socialists opposed revolution. For the most part, everyone on the Left was a dogmatic Marxist, and took as an axiom of faith that history had to go through a series of stages to arrive at their outcome. Russia was a backwards, medieval country of peasants, so of course it could not become a Communist country: first it would need to devolve power from the Tsar to the upper classes, and then the bourgeoisie would develop the country and create a capitalist economy, and finally a sufficiently strong and educated labor movement would bring about the Communist Revolution.

The problem, though, was those dang, uneducated workers! They were not having any of it: sick of the Tsar, sick of the Great War, sick of the lack of respect and poverty they faced, they were the engine that kept driving forward, demanding power. So they pushed on the leaders who claimed to speak for them, the various factions of Socialists.

Backing up a bit: the collapse of the monarchy was shockingly fast. Tsar Nicholas refused to entertain any of the demands from his detractors or the pleas of his supporters, to have a parliamentary Duma or appoint a socialist minister or make any concessions. In the tense and miserable conditions of the Great War, immense public anger led to a huge uprising, which Nicholas completely ignored. Finally, once Petrograd had been taken over, he belatedly said "Oh, fine, we'll appoint a cabinet," to which his bewildered aides said "You've lost the country." Nicholas had planned to abdicate in favor of his son; since his son was sickly, he instead designated his brother; his brother realized that his personal safety would be in jeopardy if he accepted the crown and so he declined. And, just like that, the centuries-long Romanov dynasty came crashing to an anticlimactic end.

The point is, all of this was rushed and unplanned and chaotic; there wasn't a strong organized push to overthrow the Tsar and a proposed system to replace him, it all just happened. Coming out of the February Revolution was the so-called "dual power" structure. On the one hand was the Duma, a body elected by the elites, particularly large landowners and capitalists and nobility. These were dominated by "liberals", in the classical European sense and not the modern American sense: people who believe in private industry and private freedoms without interference from the (until recently monarchic) state. Mere months ago, the liberals like the Kadets were a crusading vanguard of a leftward push to reform the backwards autocracy; now, they abruptly were placed in the far-right position of defending private capitalist interests against the majoritarian demands of workers, peasants and soldiers. Their beliefs hadn't changed at all, but their circumstances had violently shifted around them. That must have been a head-spinning change!

The other part of the dual-power system was the Soviet, which is the Russian word for "Council". These were democratically elected representatives from trade unions and soldiers' barracks, which were the two groups most responsible for the overthrow of the Tsar. They had de-facto control over much of the city's infrastructure, as they had overpowered the hated police and occupied key buildings.

The Soviet itself was far from unified. Two things in this book gave me trouble: the many different faction names, and the many different Russian person names. The Soviet included Left SRs, Right SRs, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and some other ones I'm forgetting. One thing almost everyone agreed on was that it was up to the Duma to create a government and usher Russia into a fully developed capitalist phase, and in fact that it was the role of the Soviet to accelerate that transition, so that in the future the Socialists could start a new revolution and create a communist paradise.The Bolsheviks were the only ones who disagreed: they started off as a schism of a faction of a minority of a movement: their numbers were tiny, and they were obstinate and hard to work with.

And hence the slogan that is repeated through the book over and over again, chanted by protesters and unions and rebels: "All power to the Soviets!" It isn't the Soviets who are saying that! It's the masses. Over and over again the Soviet are asked to take power, and in fact handed power on a silver platter, and over and over again they turn it down. All because of their Marxist theory! It's pretty amazing and darkly hilarious.

The structure of the Soviets in particular and the Petrograd milieu in general were a lot more democratic than I had though. A lot of the book focuses all of the various committees and presidiums and conventions and votes and delegates. From early on, the Bolsheviks set a deliberate course of persuasion: organizing at a local level, in individual factory floors and barracks and homes, to bring people over to their point of view. What do they want? Withdrawal from the war, a universal peace, worker control of the government, fairer distribution of profits, equal rights for women and ethnic minorities, a whole host of issues. Person by person, they persuade individual folks and gradually, over that eight month period, they grow their number of supporters, and hence their elected delegates, and eventually grow from the smallest into the largest faction of the Soviet.

We think of blue-collar industrial workers as being the backbone of a socialist movement, but in Russia, it was really a triumvirate: workers, peasant, and soldiers. Workers' importance is self-evident from Marxist theory. Peasants were the dominant reality in Russia at the time: serfdom had only recently been abolished, most of the people were peasants and most of their lives were miserable. Peasants don't seem to have been a major factor in Petrograd proper, but were very important in other Soviets throughout Russia, and were rhetorically very important within Petrograd.

And finally but certainly not least, there were the soldiers. While the workers' and peasants' demands were primarily economic, the soldiers' were moral. They deeply wanted respect and dignity: apparently, the Russian military culture had a deeply ingrained system of humiliation from officers, down to the forms of address they used towards soldiers and many petty acts of cruelty soldiers were forced to endure. In any time this would be terrible, but it became fully intolerable after the humiliations of the Crimean and Russo-Japanese wars, and was past the breaking point when two million Russian soldiers died during the Great War, a war that nobody could clearly explain why they were fighting.

While the soldiers were coming from a different perspective, the actual dynamics played out very similarly to the workers' uprising. Individual soldiers would be persuaded that the regime was unfit, then the unit as a whole would stand down or come over to the rebellious side, and their officers would either have to go along with it or be removed. The most striking uprising was on Kronstadt, a heavily armored island fortress near Petrograd, where a decades-long powderkeg of fury finally went off and revolutionary soldiers seized basically an entire navy. I don't think of soldiers much when I think of leftist movements, and it was striking how many of the most passionate partisans came from the military and not from organized labor.

It's fascinating to think of how history might have turned out differently, and the Russian Revolution more so than much, since it all feels so contingent and chaotic and surprising. One particular thing that I wondered about over and over again is whether any of this would have happened if World War One hadn't been happening at the same time, or if Nicholas hadn't decided to involve Russia. Without that added fear and strain, would the soldiers still have joined the uprising? And if the soldiers hadn't joined, would it have succeeded? In the end, "power is power": having hundreds of thousands of people on the street is one thing, having machine gunners and Cossacks and battleships is another.

This all gets me thinking again about misery, something I've thought about a fair amount in recent years while reading Piketty and similar writers. Having great inequality in a country, whether of wealth or status, is a recipe for strife and unrest and revolution. It doesn't seem to be coincidental that the great upheavals of the early 20th century came on the heels of the Gilded Age, or that the relatively phlegmatic social relations of the middle of the 20th century came during a long period of comparative equality. But I do wonder if, in addition to the relative inequality between the haves and the have-nots, the absolute income and status of the have-notes is significant. An extremely unequal society that can feed and house all of its citizens seems like it may be more stable than a slightly unequal society that cannot. People who feel desperation may be more likely to take a risk and put their lives on the line for change than those who have something to protect.

All that being said, after reading this book I feel like I now better understand (though do not agree with) the logic of accelerationists. The change that happened in a few months in Russia is really shocking and amazing. I don't think that change could have happened in a happy country, even if led by a Tsar or greedy capitalists. And if someone really wants to bring about a revolution, it might be in their interests to make things worse and not better in the short term, in order to make greater change possible.

I also now have a slightly better understanding of why the Left in Germany did what it did. I've long thought that the Communists were singularly responsible for the rise of the Nazi party, since they refused to join in coalition with the Socialists and thus enabled the Nazis to take power. But... that's pretty much exactly what the Bolsheviks did in Russia in 1917, roughly a decade earlier, and it worked out great for them! Having seen how Lenin refused to cooperate with other leftists, and that ended with the Bolsheviks in command of a communist country, I can see why German communists would have (mistakenly) thought they were on the same path.

And, likewise, I tend to think that much of the failure of the American Left, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, has been due to factionalism and infighting and an impulse to believe that your particular cause is more important than any other. I do think that intersectionalism is our best hope for a better future: acknowledging the myriad and overlapping systems of oppression instead of competing for which system needs to be tackled first. But, again, this is a pretty powerful example from history of great change being done when a minority opposes alliance and cooperation with its ideological cousins. I don't think you can or should derive a law from that example, but it's an interesting one.

Speaking of intersectionality, though, October does a great job at highlighting those overlapping systems of oppression in the Russian empire and how the Bolsheviks and others tackled them. Women were a lot more prominent in the Revolution than I had thought: individual women assassinated powerful figures in the state, led prison revolts, governed villages of rebels, were voted into the Soviet, and took part in the many debates of 1917. National minorities were also a big part of the project: for the most part they didn't want independence from Russia, but did want greater autonomy in making local decisions. This all fit in well with the socialists' worldview, which was always explicitly internationalist and opposed to empire. In a particularly interesting incident, a conference of woman socialists from Turkestan and Tajikistan and other Russian Muslim territories convened. They studied and debated the history of the Quran and whether its words literally applied to the present, and ultimately passed resolutions regarding the optional use of the hijab. Again, I'm impressed by how democratic so much of this was: not a man in a pince-nez writing edicts for a nation to obey, but individual collecting together to debate, convince, and eventually choose a path forward.

October wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but it was a great read. Several times throughout the book I thought, "If this scene was in a novel I would think it was way too unrealistic." That period of history, it turns out, was really bonkers. I also feel like I now have better insight into China's own inspirations, as a lot of the politics and stuff in his Bas-Lag books seem to spring from a similarly volatile environment, particularly elements like the Runagate Rampant paper and Mayor Rudgutter; the Three Quills in the books remind me a lot of the Black Hundreds from October. Truth: It's stranger than fiction!

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